Thursday, September 14, 2006

Americans Are Bad

Today, the school gave me a bicycle. Again. Actually, it's the same one given to me at the end of last semester to finally replace the one that was stolen, but this term I was told I couldn't have that one for reasons unknown, waited for the new one for two or three weeks, and was finally just given the same one again. Chinese people find it amusing that we only ride bikes for recreation in America, especially when I describe loading bikes onto a car, driving the car to a park, and then riding them. Even in a city as small as Zhangye, riding a bike is not relaxing: I have to be aware at every moment in order to dodge the various pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars, donkeys, and carts of fruit that block my way. But it's still about the only exercise I enjoy, and I can venture farther into town and break the monotony of the area outside the university.

This evening I decided to branch out and eat at a restaurant I'd never been to in a different part of town. The staff at restaurants here are often less than subtle about their surprise at seeing a new foreign customer, and about halfway through the meal I could hear the server excitedly re-telling the entirety of our dialogue when I ordered to the rest of the staff, emphasizing the part when he asked "big or small?" in English. The Chinese are the anti-French in that they don't speak English but they love to use it.

Because I'm not out-going enough and I have trouble making small talk in any language, I don't get nearly as much conversation practice in Chinese as I should. Zhangye is lacking in things like teahouses, but outside the Great Buddha Temple is a shady walking street with benches, and occasionally I study Chinese there as conspicuously as possible in the hopes someone will come up to me to talk. Tonight I had one success, as a middle-aged man rode up on his bicycle to start a conversation. He immediately pulled out a soiled packet of "Sweet n'Low" sugar, all in English, which he proudly placed in my hands. In fact, I had trouble getting the (limited) conversation off the subject of the sugar, and he kept repeating a single, urgent question, which to me meant only "sugar youbing?". He was obviously convinced I would suddenly understand the words if he just tried hard enough, and he recruited a man riding a bicycle-powered garbage cart that passed by. I asked him to write his question, but he said only "my writing is not good" with some embarrassment and it became obvious that neither of them knew how to write. After the two had an extensive conversation about whether or not I could understand Chinese, rather than actually talking to me (this is common), Cart Man asked where I was from, and declared "Americans are bad!" as he rode away. I've heard little anti-American sentiment, but I'm sure that has as much to do with my limited Chinese as the open-mindedness of locals. In the end Sugar Man still didn't give up - he asked me to come again tomorrow, when he'll have someone else write out the question for him.
(note - he wasn't there but I later figured out he was asking if we have "diabetes" in America)

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